4.2 Holidays: Introduction

Why Celebrate the Jewish Holidays?

Just about everyone has a calendar in their kitchen, and there is probably not a kitchen calendar anywhere without hand-drawn circles and scribbled notes. What are these notes and circles? They are the appointments and commitments that make each family unique - the dental appointments, soccer games, music lessons, birthdays, celebrations, vacations, graduations, and anniversaries that distinguish one family from another. No other calendar out of all the millions of kitchen calendars scattered throughout America is a duplicate of any other. The appointments, commitments, celebrations, and observances on each particular calendar constitute the stitching that makes each family unique and binds it together as one.

What is true for every family in America is true as well for the family of Israel scattered around the globe and sown across time and eternity. The holidays of Israel are our unique calendar, circled and scribbled, stained with cholent, wine, charoset, birthday cake, and sometimes blood. But this calendar is what stitches us together as a family, enabling this scattered and trans-generational family to rejoice together, to weep together, and to steep in fragrant memory.

And just as it is erosive to family ties to forget birthdays and anniversaries, so Jewish identity erodes and our ties with each other unravel when we fail to honor our common calendar. While neglecting these holy days, both the happy ones and the sad, will not annul our family status, can there be any doubt that such neglect weakens family ties?

Because it is important for us to be family to each other, all the holidays are important - the big ones and the small ones. They are no burden - they are the stitching that binds us to each other, and by which we honor the One who is the Father of us all.

4.3 Holidays: Decisions & Commentary

4.3.1 Chaggim According to the explicit teaching of the Torah, we should avoid melechet avodah (servile work) on the chaggim: The first and seventh days of Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the first day of Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. According to Jewish tradition, this includes all Sabbath restrictions on work with the exception of the transferring of flame, the preparation and cooking of food, and the carrying of objects, all of which may be done on chaggim.

In the Torah, the chaggim are referred to as mo’adim? Mo’adim are the “fixed” or “appointed” times listed and described in Leviticus 23. In that chapter they are also called “holy assemblies” (mikra’ey kodesh), occasions set apart for Israel to gather and worship the Holy One.

According to Ramban, melechet avodah (servile work) refers to work that is a burden, such as ordinary labor in factory and field. Exodus 12:16 describes the work that is permitted on Pesach: “only what every person is to eat (okhel nefesh), that alone may be prepared for you.” Based on this verse, the Mishnah states: “The difference between a holiday (yom tov) and Shabbat is only the food (okhel nefesh)” (m. Megillah 1:5). The preparation of food is forbidden on Shabbat but permitted on holidays.

Rabbinic tradition understood this permission to include all actions that would be involved in normal food preparation, such as transferring a flame for cooking, and carrying objects from one domain to another. According to b. Betzah 12a, the houses of Shammai and Hillel disagreed over whether this permission meant that such activities (e.g., transferring a flame and carrying objects from one domain to another) were allowed in general on holidays, or only when food is actually being prepared. The House of Hillel took the more lenient view, and their position prevailed. It should be noted that the Shabbat prohibition of buying and selling also applies to holidays.

The last (seventh) day of Pesach and Shemini Atzeret are chaggim with the attendant work restrictions. The Torah is unambiguous on this point: the final day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:8) and the eighth day after the beginning of Sukkot (Leviticus 23:36, 39) are full holidays. This needs to be stressed because so few Jews today outside the Orthodox world observe these holidays. The intermediate days (Chol haMo’ed) of Pesach and Sukkot are considered part of the festivals and the practices associated with each of them are observed throughout their duration. Normal work, however, is permitted during this period though it is commendable to refrain from any unnecessary labor.

Though the Torah only explicitly prohibits work on the first days of Pesach and Sukkot and the seventh day of Pesach (Leviticus 23:7,8, 35), it does not prohibit work on the remaining days of these festivals. It is our judgment that the prohibition of work on Chol haMo’ed is d’rabbanan (following here the judgment of Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Shevitat Yom Tov, 7;1 and Tur, Orach Chayyim, 530). Given this judgment and in accordance with the general principles of Jewish law (kol sefeka d’rabbanan l’kula, “a matter of doubt which arises concerning an issue that is d’rabbanan is resolved in leniency”; b. Betza 3b), we adopt a leniency regarding the prohibition of work on Chol haMo’ed. However, we commend that people refrain from regular work and employment during this period to focus their attention on the observance of the holiday and spending time with their families and communities. We recognize that in the traditional practice of Diaspora Jews, additional days are added to Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and are observed in the same manner as the first days of these chaggim (as well as the seventh day in the case of Pesach). Since establishment of these days is d’rabbanan and since Reform Jews and some Conservative Jews no longer observe them as chaggim, we regard their observance as a venerable, but non-binding minhag. In those localities where the wider Jewish community observes these days, one may honor them in keeping with the local minhag. Priority, however, should be placed on observance of those days that are mo’adim d’oraita.

One can honor holidays, even if one is not fully observing them. For example, one could decide to practice our occupation on such a day, and yet still avoid public acts that treat the day as secular or normal (e.g., mowing the lawn, painting the house, going to the movies). We commend the avoidance of all activities that would detract from the peacefulness, rest, and sanctity of the chaggim. We commend attendance at communal worship services on the chaggim, but if such attendance is not possible one should use the standard holiday Amidah in one’s daily prayer. It is appropriate to make special preparations for holiday meals, since such preparations add to the distinctiveness, sanctity, and communal aspect of chaggim.

4.3.2 Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur one should fast completely (no food or drink) beginning before sundown and ending after nightfall the following day. This applies to all of bar/bat mitzvah age and over. Those who have special health needs should eat and drink according to those needs.

The Torah commands the practice of "self-affliction" ('inuy nefesh) on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32; Numbers 29:7). Other biblical texts demonstrate that this phrase implies fasting (Psalm 35:13; Isaiah 58:3), along with other expressions of self-denial. In the Acts of the Apostles the day is referred to simply as "the fast" (Acts 27:9). According to the Mishnah (m. Yoma 8:1), and the consensus of Jewish tradition, the fast required on Yom Kippur involves abstention from both food and drink.

Children nine years old or younger should not fast on Yom Kippur. Children more than nine years old should learn to fast, adding hours each year as they grow older.

"Children need not be made to fast on Yom Kippur, but they should train them the year before or two years before, in order that they become accustomed to the observance of commandments" (m. Yoma 8:4). The Shulchan Aruch recommends that the training begin at age nine (133:19). On Yom Kippur one should not bathe for pleasure, but washing the hands and face for hygienic purposes is not inappropriate. On Yom Kippur one should not engage in sexual relations.

The Mishnah defines the "self-affliction" required on Yom Kippur as involving abstention from washing (for pleasure), sexual intercourse, and the wearing of leather sandals, in addition to a total fast (m. Yoma 8:1).

4.3.3 Rosh Hashanah.

On Rosh Hashanah one should hear the sounding of the shofar.

The Torah (Numbers 29:1) calls the first day of the seventh month (reckoned according to the festal calendar, in which Nissan is the first month) a "day when the horn is sounded" (yom teruah). It also states (Leviticus 23: 24) that the day is "commemorated with loud blasts" (zichron teruah). According to the Mishnah, this implies that a Jew is obligated to hear the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (m. Rosh Hashanah 3:7).

4.3.4 Sukkot. As weather permits during Sukkot, one should eat as many of one's meals as possible in a sukkah (whether a congregational sukkah, a friend's sukkah, or one's own). We would also commend the expanded practice of sleeping in the sukkah.

"The Sukkah is a temporary structure...erected in the open air, under the sky, not in a room or under a tree. It consists of four walls and removable covering...Theoretically two complete walls and part of a third wall satisfy the minimum requirements for a Sukkah, but it is customary to have four walls, and these should be strong enough to withstand the impact of ordinary winds...The covering, called sekhakh, must be of material that grows from the soil, has been detached from the ground, and cannot be defiled...The sekhakh should be loose enough so that one can see the sky, yet thick enough so that the shadow it casts on the ground exceeds the light thrown by the sun." (Klein, 162-63)

"You shall live in booths (sukkot) seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in booths" (Leviticus 23:42). The Mishnah teaches that this means making the sukkah one's primary home and one's house a secondary home during the seven days of the holiday (m. Sukkah 2:9). However, the Mishnah also teaches that one should move from the sukkah to the house when harsh weather intervenes. The Shulchan Aruch expands on this concession: "If staying in the sukkah causes you discomfort, that is if you are troubled by the cold weather or the wind, or by a bad odor or similar annoyances, you are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah on all nights other than the first night, and on all the days of Sukkot" (135:17). As an expanded practice, we commend building one's own sukkah for the celebration of Sukkot. One should wave the lulav and etrog at least once during the holiday in accordance with traditional practice. The traditional mitzvah berachah should be recited before waving. While it is acceptable to wave a lulav/etrog that belongs to the congregation or to a fellow congregant, it is preferable to purchase one's own.

"On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days" (Leviticus 23:40). According to the Talmud, the "product of hadar trees" is the citron (etrog), and the "leafy tree" is the myrtle (b. Sukkah 35a, 32b).

The lulav consists of palm, myrtle, and willow branches placed together. To fulfill the mitzvah of waving the lulav, the etrog is placed in the left hand, the lulav in the right hand, and they are held together so that they touch one another. When reciting the mitzvah blessing, the tip of the etrog points downward and the stem upward. When waving, the tip of the etrog points upward and the stem downward. The lulav and etrog are waved first toward the east, then toward the south, then west, north, up, and down.

4.3.5 Pesach. From 10 a.m. on the day of the first Seder (the 14th of Nissan) till the end of Passover eight days later no leaven shall be eaten.

According to the traditional rabbinic interpretation, the Written Torah forbids eating leaven from “noon” (in halakhic terms, the half-way point between sunrise and sunset) on the day the Pesach lamb was sacrificed (m. Pesachim 1:4). This time was set by calculating the earliest hour when the afternoon sacrifices (which on this day included the Pesach lambs) would begin in the Temple (m. Pesachim 5:1). The Sages then added an additional two-hour buffer as a fence around the Torah.

Pesach ends after either seven or eight days depending on one’s minhag regarding the additional day of Yom Tov practiced among segments of the Jewish world (See section Leaven (called chametz) refers specifically to five kinds of grain which rise when put in contact with water. These are wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats.

During Pesach we do not eat these, nor do we eat foods containing any of them. Of course, the exception here is matzah – which consists of unleavened bread made from any of these five types of grain. Ashkenazic normative practice has historically included the minhag to avoid a halakhic category of foods referred to as kitniyot: beans, buckwheat, caraway, cardamom, corn, edamame, fennel seeds, fenugreek, flaxseeds/linseed, hemp seeds, lentils, millet, peas, poppy seeds, rapeseed, rice, sesame seeds, soybeans, sunflower seeds, teff. The MJRC does ot regard this minhag to be an authoritative norm for contemporary practice, but as a custom whose observance is a matter of communal and individual discretion.

According to traditional Ashkenazic authorities, these are forbidden because they can easily be confused with the five grains listed above.

In recent years the normativity of this minhag has waned among Ashkenazic Jews, most strongly articulated in the 2015 Rabbinical assembly CJLP responsum, which overturns the ban on kitniyot. That said, ancestral custom holds significant importance for many Jews, and large portions of Torah-observant Ashkenazic Jewry continue to refrain from the eating of kitniyot.

Therefore, while the MJRC does not uphold the ban on kitniyot for Askhenazic Jews, the MJRC encourages individual Jews to make decision for their sedarim, homes and meals throughout Pesach that keep in mind the customs of the people with whom they will be eating and providing transparency about one’s own practice.

Furthermore, the fact that certain processed kitniyot products include elements of actual chametz will require individuals to check these products carefully lest they unwittingly eat chametz on Pesach. For example, one’s local rice products may not have “kosher for Passover” labeling.

The MJRC also encourages communities to work to ensure there are non-kitniyot options at communal meals during Pesach (communal sedarim, Shabbat Chol haMo’ed Pesach, etc.) for people who may maintain the minhag concerning the abstention from kitniyot. Foods that have a “Kosher for Passover” hekhsher (symbol indicating official kosher certification) are guaranteed to contain no chametz. During Pesach shoppers should look for the distinctive markings on food packages. During the week of Pesach one should not eat in restaurants that are not kosher for Pesach, unless one is only purchasing a beverage that does not contain any chametz in it.

The chances of accidentally eating food with chametz is great when eating in restaurants, therefore this should be avoided. Prior to the beginning of Pesach, a family may sell all their chametz to a non-Jewish friend or neighbor. All the chametz is gathered, taken out of the house for the duration of Pesach and sold for an agreed upon amount of money (usually one dollar). After Pesach, the money is exchanged for the chametz. One may also keep the chametz in one’s own home, but separated from the foods eaten for Pesach (e.g., in the basement or a closet) provided one does not make use of these areas during Pesach.

The Torah prohibits not only the consumption of chametz on Pesach, but also its possession (Exodus 12:19). The sale of chametz is a mechanism to concretize this without having to dispose of food wastefully.

In some synagogues the procedure of selling chametz is entrusted to the Rabbi who is granted power of attorney” to establish the terms of the sale. Individuals in the synagogue may sign a registry indicating their agreement to have their Rabbi fulfill this responsibility on their behalf. In this case the sold chametz is kept in ones home in a separate place. During Pesach, one should not use the dishware, cookware, and utensils one uses regularly during the year until those items have been fully cleaned such that they contain no chametz. Items which cannot have chametz fully removed (e.g., wooden vessels and other utensils with gaps inaccessible to cleaning) should be replaced with alternative items that are used for Pesach only.

One of the great gifts God gave in the various mitzvot of Pesach is the command to concretize our commitment to the covenant in the earthly details of our lives. Few things overturn the sense of normalcy and constancy more than a complete overhaul of the kitchen. Pesach is a commemoration of the seminal transition for the people of Israel. We participate in this transition through a series of annual practices that are meant to stir us into a posture of openness to newness, redemption, and Divine service. Accordingly, no holiday expects as much of the Jewish home as Pesach.

As mentioned in the commentary to decision, it is not only eating but also the presence of chametz which is prohibited in the Torah (see Exodus 12:19). Accordingly, one area of special attention is the setting where our food is stored and prepared. The traditional practice of many observant Jews is to kasher all vessels that can be kashered (not all materials are “kasherable”) in preparation for Pesach such that they are returned to a neutral halakhic status. The core issue at stake for Pesach is the removal of all recognizable chametz. Contemporary cleaning materials can generally remove all food particles. That said there are items whose structural design or material composition makes them susceptible to retaining pieces of recognizable chametz. Accordingly, the MJRC recommends that only these items be set aside for Pesach, while other utensils/dishes/cookware be simply thoroughly cleaned.

There may be those for whom the standard of traditional kashering for Pesach is more congruent with their practice more broadly and may also enable them to share with their families and community. For people in those situations the MJRC does continue to validate the legitimacy of the kashering model as a hiddur mitzvah (beautification of the commandment) and a way to ensure cohesion within communities and relationships.

Our core position reflects our concern to appropriately balance the following values: fidelity to the core d’oraita mitzvot of Pesach concerning removal of chametz, recognition of the wisdom of mitzvot d’rabbanan in providing the way to observe the mitzvot, and responsiveness to the realities of contemporary life. Rather than reflecting a concern for supporting doing the bare minimum for the d’oraita mitzvah, we hope this standard of practice will enhance the accessibility of Pesach preparation to those for whom it may have been made distant. The prohibition to not own chametz includes its existence in the spaces one owns. Therefore, homes and vehicles are to be thoroughly cleaned prior to the beginning of Pesach.

We recommend starting this process no later than Rosh Chodesh Nissan. It can be helpful to begin with cleaning rooms/areas where it is easy to avoid bringing in food, and to avoid brining food into those areas once one has thoroughly cleaned them. On the 13th of Nissan any remaining chametz is to be identified, and before 10:00 am on the 14th of Nisan this chametz is to be destroyed. One may do this earlier in one is traveling. We commend the tradition of b— the search for leaven as the way to enact this process. Once the chametz is removed, one recites the appropriate mitzvah berachah to declare any missed chametz as ownerless.

After sundown on the night before the Pesach Seder (or the evening before one travels, if one is travelling for Pesach), all lights of the home are turned off, a candle is lit, a berachah recited (al biur chametz) and the search for a few intentionally scattered crumbs of bread is begun. After these are scooped up, they are set-aside until morning, and burned. The power of the symbolic removal of chametz in such a deliberate and dramatic fashion is especially meaningful.

4.3.6 Counting the Omer.

The counting of the omer is to be done in accordance with the existing Halakhah, commencing on the second day of Pesach and culminating at Shavuot fifty days following. Though various schools of thought existed during the Second Temple period concerning which day to comment counting, the existing Halakhah has prevailed for the past two millennia, and any change would be an unnecessary adaptation resulting in an odd variance from the greater Jewish community.

The practice of counting the omer derives from Leviticus 23:15: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering —the day after the Sabbath— you shall count seven weeks.” The Sages understood the command “you shall count” as requiring a formal, liturgical act in which the days between Pesach and Shavuot would each receive a numerical designation. Following the interpretation adopted by the Pharisees during the Second Temple Period (and supported by the Septuagint, Philo and Josephus), rabbinic tradition understood “the Sabbath” of Leviticus 23:15 to be the first day of Pesach. Thus, the counting of the omer would commence on the second day of Pesach. Apparently, the Sadducees and the Qumran community interpreted the word as referring to a Saturday — either the Saturday after Pesach began, or the one after the seven-day Pesach holiday ended. According to their reckoning, the practice of counting the omer would always begin on a Sunday.

4.3.7 Minor Fasts and Festivals. The Ninth of Av. Our basic practice includes fasting on the Ninth of Av.

Zechariah 8:19 refers to four fasts, all associated with the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The most important of these occurs on the Ninth of Av. According to the Mishnah (m. Taanit 4:6) both the first and the second Temples were destroyed on this day. Many other historical calamities (such as the expulsion from Spain) have befallen the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av. Consequently, after Yom Kippur this day has been the most solemn fast in the Jewish calendar. While work is not prohibited (a common characteristic of all minor fasts and festivals), one avoids all eating and drinking from sunset to sunset, as on Yom Kippur. Chanukah. Our basic practice includes lighting menorah candles on Chanukah, accompanied by the traditional berachot. (As with Shabbat candles, a Messianic berachah may be added.) Purim. Our basic practice includes hearing the Megillah (the Book of Esther) read on Purim. Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzmaut. Our basic practice involves commemorating these days by gathering (if possible) with others from our congregation or with the wider Jewish community. As an expanded practice we commend lighting a yahrzeit candle on Yom HaShoah.

These holidays commemorate the two monumental events of twentieth century Jewish history: the holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. These events, both of profound spiritual significance, have left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the Jewish people. It is appropriate that we gather with other Jews on these occasions to demonstrate our solidarity with our people, expressing together our grief and our joy.